As part of our 50th Anniversary celebration, we are collecting and sharing the stories of people connected to the islands, whether they are park guests, former residents or former park employees.
This is the 18th in our series called “Lakeshore Logbook,” a collection of memories provided by former National Park Service employees.
Living and working in the park on a day to day basis, they’ve experienced a lot to be sure. We hope you enjoy their perspectives.
Daniel Blankenship worked in the park from 2008 to 2014. He worked for the interpretive division of Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. Over the summers at the park he was stationed at Stockton Island where he presented formal programs, provided guided activities, managed the marina/campground, and led kayaking tours around the island. Daniel also worked at Raspberry Island where he gave tours and at Little Sand Bay/Meyers Beach where he assisted with monitoring kayaker safety.
What is the coolest thing you did in Apostle Islands National Lakeshore (APIS) as part of your job?
I got to lead kayaking trips around Stockton Island, and worked with visitors to teach people how to roll their kayaks in Presque Isle Bay.
What is the most fun experience you had in the park?
The most fun I had while working involved my days out on Stockton Island. My typical day was full of entertainment because of the wonderful park visitors we had returning year after year. I would get to know the families on a personal level and it was thrilling to greet them summer after summer.
I would check in with them, go for hikes with them, engage them with evening programs, and lastly -my favorite- I would go kayaking with them around the tombolo of Stockton to the sea caves and various beaches.
I remember one summer the winter storms had uncovered the Noquebay shipwreck in Julian Bay. I would lead people to the wreckage, out to where we would swim and snorkel to see the donkey boiler and other parts of the ship emerge from the sands. It was a wonderful job.
Please share a memorable experience you had in the park.
I remember being involved with so many boating emergencies or disasters. I remember a sailboat getting stuck outside of the marina because a rope was thrown and got sucked into the prop. In a summer storm, a yacht anchored out in Julian Bay got washed ashore. But some of the most memorable (and worst memories) are associated with the knot that would develop in my gut after I would hear the park’s dispatcher radio that there was a kayaker missing. Lake Superior is an incredible force; especially when the summer storms rip over and around the Bayfield Peninsula.
What is the most amazing thing you saw in the park?
On one of my last years working at the park before I moved on to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, I remember paddling from Presque Isle Ranger Station to Quarry Bay. I was paddling to the bay with a group of campers that brought their own kayaks. There were these rolling slow waves rocking me and setting the pace for a relaxed afternoon. As I pulled myself along we were having casual conversations and I was answering questions about the islands. I don’t believe I was the first person to see it. I think it was a visitor that said, “What is that in the water over there?”
Before I saw what they were talking about I heard it.
Huff. Puff. Huff. Puff.
Then I finally saw a shape materialize out of the swells. I stopped for the longest time, squinting and staring. What is that?
As soon as I realized what the shape was it made sense. A black bear swimming between islands. It paid no mind to us but was leaving Stockton Island and making it’s why south toward Madeline Island.
In my head I felt like it was really close, but in reality the bear was pretty far away. The noise of its breathing was being carried across the open water. It was such an amazing experience to see and hear. After it became a black speck on the verge of disappearing we could still hear the huffing and puffing of its panting over the silence of the lake.
Please share an accomplishment from your tenure at APIS that gives you pride.
There are too many to count. In reflecting upon experiences among the islands, I deeply appreciate every moment I got the privilege to work there. I think the coolest thing I got to do FOR the park was art. I painted a Greco-roman frieze of fish species of lake superior that was hung over a fishery display and I did some drawings that were incorporated in the Junior Ranger booklet.
What story from your time at APIS do you share most frequently?
The story that I tell the most would have to be leading a 7 day kayaking tour among the islands for a kayaking outfitter. On Day 6, late in the day it was forecast to be rough waters and strong winds but early in the day it was supposed to be clear weather – or so said the weather radio. We ate lunch at the northern side of Basswood Island and after lunch we started a crossing to the southern tip of Oak Island. I was not the lead kayaker for the day so I was hanging back and “corralling” kayakers, keeping them in a group as we made the crossing. Over halfway to Oak Island, there was some commotion among the kayakers. Looking to the northwest we could see white-caps coming towards us down the north channel, the strong winds were coming much earlier than forecasted – evidence of Lake Superior’s unpredictability. As the waves hit our group, everyone was immediately unnerved.
The Libra XT kayaks are tandem boats that are wide and stable. With the whitecaps hitting the tandem boats there was never a doubt that the boats were sound and wouldn’t flip – which they didn’t. But the bow of the boats are designed to be high for cresting through the waves. However, this high bow design was catching the wind and fighting our patrons’ ability to steer. Immediately, the other guides and me went to work keeping the group together to continue the crossing.
At one point I hear over the wind and the waves, “Daniel, they are getting away! Get them!”
Two teenagers had insisted all trip to paddle together. Every day of the trip, “Can we paddle together?” And every day their request to paddle together was denied. However, today it was granted for the calm morning and early afternoon portion of our trip. But now, with the sudden and changed conditions, the two were being pushed off course from our intended landing point. The winds turned their boat downwind and wasn’t allowing them to correct their course; they couldn’t remain aimed north to Oak Island. I knew what I had to do.
Like some kind of sheep dog in a boat, I sprinted through the waves, surfing my kayak, and caught up to the teenagers that were leaving the flock. I got in front of them and pulled up to the bow of their boat, leaned into it to form a “T” and immediately clipped in my tow belt. I was out of breathe from sprinting in my kayak.
“Ya’ll,” huff huff, “alright?”
“Yeah. What do we do, the rudders not working.”
“The rudder,” huff puff, “…will only work if you are going…” huff, “…going forward. I’m going…” swallow, “…going to help.”
I then described to them that I was going to use the tow belt to help correct their course and pull them so that they are facing into the wind to get them back to the group. Towing a kayak can be tricky though, especially as a guide. You want to assist the other boat but you don’t want to tow them completely on your own. If you do try to muscle both boats, you can exhaust yourself in no time. And if you are exhausted, you won’t be any assistance at all and will only endanger yourself and your patrons.
“This… huff huff …Isn’t a free ride. I need both of you… …to paddle forwards. Ok?”
They stared blankly at me.
“I can’t paddle both our boats. So I need you to paddle.”
Still no head nods or any gesture that would lead me to believe that they understood what I was trying to convey to them. One more time louder?
“I need you to paddle forwar… NOT NOW!” Immediately, the teenager in the front of the boat took a strong paddle stroke forward just as a wave was crashing into the stern of their big kayak. The mixture of the paddle stroke and the wave pushed the bow of their kayak into my ribs and proceeded to push me over. The momentum of their kayak sat their boat on top of mine pinning me upside down in the water.
It felt like forever that I was upside down, but in reality it was only moments. In my head I was thinking, ‘Am I really going to have to wet exit?” – a maneuver for getting out of the kayak by pulling the skirt off the cockpit and sliding out of it like taking off a pair of pants. But then, from a perspective of being upside down, looking at their boat’s bow seated on the bottom of my kayak, approximately where my butt was, I could see their paddles flashing in the water. They were making reverse strokes and they were pulling themselves off my kayak!
‘Thank you teenagers!’ I rolled up to one side, set up my paddle, hip snapped, rolled the kayak and popped up out of the water gasping for air. I was only under the water for seconds, but in that time apparently there was emotional devastation.
The other guides of the trip and myself had spent days telling all of our patrons that Lake Superior is a body of water to be respected. We needed to be careful and stay as a group. If conditions and circumstances popped up, we were to handle everything as a group. Lake Superior could have deadly consequences to those that didn’t respect it. Lake Superior is deadly. We had hammered these messages into our visitors so that they would be cautious while on the water. We hammered into them these messages so well that for two teenagers, the sight of their boat tipping me over and then pinning me underwater there was only one revelation…
“WE THOUGHT WE KILLED YOU!” Screamed the teenager in the front of the boat. They both were crying and sobbing hysterically.
I thought about their shouted words a lot throughout the summers. It started as I paddled them back to the flock of boats where they were welcomed. “We thought we killed you,” seemed to be a very escalated response to something that happened so fast. Almost comical. But I thought about their words every trip that I took on the waters of Lake Superior after that because those words have a deeper meaning. Things can change so fast on Lake Superior. It was tens of minutes from beautiful weather to white caps. It was minutes from all of our boats being together to there being a straggler. And it was seconds between those teenagers thinking that they were being rescued to thinking that they had just accidentally killed their rescuer.
If you could return to just one place in APIS, where would you go? Why?
I would go back to Stockton Island to see the ranger station.
I would want to revisit the place I would sit and read all night long, the trails that I would jog on a daily basis, my favorite spot to enjoy Julian Bay Beach and the places I would dive off the rocks to go swimming in the cold water. My memories of the summers among the islands play out like a film in my mind.
Warm days, fun adventures, work that felt more like fun than work are memories that are tied up in a mental narration that became my introduction to being a park ranger.
We want to thank Dan for his entry into our 50th Anniversary Lakeshore Logbook. We look forward to sharing more Logbook entries with you in the coming weeks. You can find the whole series here.